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Context

I work in IT services companies and I've seen several colleagues and/or friends of mine that are in power positions (project leader, tech expert...) take on too many responsibilities, with the consequence of severely impacting their private life because they work a lot of extra hours (unpaid&untraced) so their projects don't fail.

Overtime work reduces the time to spend with their families at home if they have one, and/or the time to spend on hobbies, and it also comes with a great deal of additional stress. Recently, one of them got sudden 2-weeks leave because they were so close to burnout even the company realized it would be worse to let the situation go further. Another has shown complete relapse in an habit they had previously spent a lot of effort for years, even though they had been so iron-willed about it before.

According to me, they are risking their physical and mental health in a situation where it is not needed - the IT sector is thriving at the time, and the salary is enough. The way I see it, they are used to taking on responsibilities but have trouble recognizing or setting up a limit to the workload they take on. They are in positions where they feel that they alone are responsible of the success of a project, but in my opinion, it's also the company's responsibility to allow enough 'resources' (aka, people) for projects to be completed. The company (or at least the involved levels of management) are aware that the workload is too much to be done in the theoretical work hours, but as the work is finished in overtime, there's no problem and thus no need to add more resources.

(The companies I'm talking about are not small companies that would fail if a project fail. One of them is 40 000 people and the projects are 5 to 25 people - not a game changer.)

Question

I'm both worried for my friends and pissed at the companies for taking advantage of responsible people. But we're not that close of friends ; I might miss crucial context elements ; I suspect it's not my place to do anything about that, and anyway, any change in the situation will have to come from the involved people and not from an outsider.

But in the assumption that they might be in a situation from which they could and should get out, are there ways in which I could discuss the subject with them to help them acknowledge (or progress toward the acknowledgment) that there's an issue that's not going to disappear and need to be addressed?

For example, right now, I'm thinking about asking them if they could give me an estimate of their real work hours for the past weeks, or asking them 'what would be the limit where you would put your foot down?' in the hope to make them consider the current situation in regard to this limit...

PS: not putting this in Workplace SE because either I haven't ever worked in the same company as my friend, or I'm not working anymore in the same company. I'll ask there if it's best, though.

Udate answering comments

Regarding company culture about overtime, speaking of the one I used to work in:

  • It's considered as normal to work some extra-hours, for developpers as well as project leaders, though for the last, it's often in the form of working at home to work on files (so a bit harder for me to estimate their actual overtime).
  • It's unofficially frowned upon to put in extra-hours without your boss authorization, and if you ask for that, they'll tell you that you were not ordered to do overtime so you shouldn't have done so. This would probably go against your reputation in the company and impact your chance of augmentation or promotion.

While I don't like that overtime is the normal, what I'm worried about here is more extra-hours than usual, even for people in their position. For at least one of them, it's evenings and weekends, in a way that does not seem sustainable or healthy to me.

  • since you're essentially asking how you can ask your friends if your evaluation of their work life balance is accurate and if they are happy with it I would say this is an interpersonal issue, hopefully someone here will have some good answers for you – BKlassen Dec 4 '18 at 21:32
  • How does the culture of the company view unpaid extra hours ? Are they expected ? Frowned upon ? I know that in some environment, there's a lot of social pressure to overwork (banking and startups come to mind) – Aserre Dec 5 '18 at 8:55
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Speak to them honestly, and with humility.

You don't know their specific situations, you don't know a lot of the details of their lives, and you're willing to admit that you're unsure you are close enough to them to really bring up these kinds of things with them.

Whenever I've been in situations like this in the past, I have brought up my concerns honestly and with the preceding caveat that I'm willing to accept that I may be reading things completely wrong. This has worked well for me in the past. Sometimes someone is willing to listen and it goes well. Sometimes you're shot down, but I've never had a negative response go farther than, "It's more complicated than that and I don't want to talk about it."

Make sure that when you bring this up to them that you are precise in your words. You are telling them what you see and what you think is happening. You are not telling them their own objective reality and you definitely don't want to assume their values.

It's dangerous to speak, but it's more dangerous not to speak. Take a step forward with full acceptance of your flaws and knowing that it could go poorly otherwise you will be chained to inaction.

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A direct approach will probably not work here. My advice is to peel back the layers of who these people are and what underlying belief is reenforcing their decision to work insane hours. This will require asking a lot of probing questions and then listening sharply to their answer for clues. Pay not so much attention to their superficial answers, but how their answer provides a direction to query why they believe that. What I mean is, the words they say will provide evidence of their reasoning and beliefs yet very few people verbalize their beliefs and often aren't even consciously aware of them. We usually form beliefs subconsciously and then bind them to behaviours based on things we feel are within our control.

Having worked 100hrs/week in the past, I will briefly give my rationale...My priority was always my family. The needs of the family are shelter, food, and ...I don't know..some other stuff. I need money to maintain shelter and food. My job provides the money, therefor as long as I have my job my family is safe. Therefor my job must come first before the day-to-day needs of my family. I must make sure work doesn't fail. I am working 80-100 hrs/week but at least I feel safe and secure knowing I am needed. Three years go by. Uh oh. My marriage is in shambles due to lack of attention and a number of choices I made for work. We have food and shelter but we are distant, angry and contemptuous of each other and the family is falling apart. In a moment, I realize I am worrying about something that might happen instead of what is happening now and that there are equally other stuff in a family I wasn't paying due attention.

Notice I had many "therefor"s in there which is why you must probe deeper than the superficial answer because the true answers lay in a chain of beliefs. Then the overall belief system creates a plan of action which is what the people around us see, they don't directly see the belief system.

To bring change in these people's lives you will need to ask a lot probing questions then feedback to them what they are saying but paraphrased as a belief. Present to them their own rationale and at the point they accept their rationale as presented before them you can add your own evidence for them to consider. This is best presented as a story from your own history or retelling someone else's story. It's not important whose story it is, or even that it is factually true, but that you are presenting it as "a story" which they can decide to accept or not. You are not pushing your own opinion as to how to behave. You can really hit home if you can present how their last belief is in conflict with the first, called a "double bind" such as my own example believing that "family comes first, yadda yadda, therefor work comes first".

Tai Chi Zen Mind teaches that going against force just creates more force, only by accepting their force and moving with it can we easily change the direction of that force with little effort. Same here, accept who they are and the decisions they made as rationale, build rapport so they accept you without resistance, then add more evidence to their beliefs (apply to the pressure points). They will reevaluate their previous decision and alter behaviour.

It's good of you to want to help these people. I wish you the best of luck!

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